Speech at the launch of Haiku Bindii anthology Willow Light

(Play Shakuhachi: Yama)

Good afternoon. Thanks Lyn and Jill for inviting me to launch the second collection by the Bindii Japanese Genre Poetry Book.

I’d planned to launch this book by giving a bit of an over-view of the history of the Bindii group. It wasn’t long before I realized that this probably wouldn’t be terribly exciting for a group of people primarily interested in the poetry. Then I decided that most of the people who’d be at the launch would probably know more about the history of Bindii than I did anyway.

Julia and Jill had suggested that I play a bit of shakuhachi since people with an interest in Japanese genre poetry would probably have an interest in other aspects of Japanese culture as well.

For some reason I’ve let the shakuhachi practice slide since my knee operation in February. So for the last few days I’ve been brushing up on some traditional Japanese folk tunes so I wouldn’t look and sound too bad for you. While I was practicing I also reflected on the nature of the instrument and Japanese poetry.

This was quite fortuitous as it provided me with the theme of my little spiel: the strong parallels between playing the shakuhachi and writing (or performing) Japanese genre verse.

For me there are countless parallels between the two. The obvious one is that they are both deeply a part of ancient Japanese Art and Tradition. More pertinent for me is that they are both intimately personal, both are minimalist (and look deceptively easy) and both are steeped in the ‘Here and Now’.

(Play Shakuhachi: Kokoriko)

The basic structure of the shakuhachi is a piece of bamboo cut from the point where it leaves the ground. It’s drilled with 5 holes – hence the pentatonic nature of the traditional music played on it. Having said this, however, by covering 1/3, ½ or 2/3 of a hole or altering the angle of wind blown across the guchi or ‘mouth’ of the instrument, experienced players can reproduce any note desired, including all Western scales.

It’s probably not coincidence that the simplest haiku is usually presented in a syllable format of 5. 7. 5. Odd numbers represent good fortune. Japanese people will rarely give you two gifts. (3, 5, or 7 are much more auspicious.) Try buying 2 pieces of pottery in Japan and the seller would rather give you a third piece than to tempt the fates.

Pagodas are likely to have 3, 5 or 7 storeys.

Incidentally – I was pleased to see variants on the usual 5.7.5 in your collection. I believe that Haiku is about the idea and brevity – not slavishly counting syllables!


The basis of both speech and music is the human breath and voice, so perhaps it’s the voice and breath that make both the shakuhachi and poetry quintessentially human. The Chinese qi or chi or “life force” is literally ‘breath’ or ‘air’.


Both the shakuhachi and Japanese poetic forms have a kind of zen mimimalism about them. The Komuso monks used their shakuhachis as a meditative tool in much the same way as prana (breath) is the basis of Indian yoga. The monks wore large wicker baskets over their heads to eliminate ego. Their reaching towards perfection was a quest for detachment. The beauty of the music was to glorify Buddha, not themselves.


Both the shakuhachi and Japanese poetry look simple, yet to do it well is far from simple. Expressing complex and deep ideas in a simple way is a great challenge but very rewarding when it’s achieved. Sometimes the self-imposed discipline of stringent rules can release a kind of creativity which can only come from this enforced matrix. It reminds me of jazz musicians like Herbie Hancock or Chick Corea who can improvise freely at lightning speed because they are working within an intransigent chord pattern and are benefiting from the discipline of a lifetime’s practice.

(Play Shakuhachi: Takeda no komori uta)

I’d like to read just a few poems from the collection to illustrate some of these ideas. Many haiku and shakuhachi tunes demonstrate this idea of

Here and now:

Judith Ahmed’s:

today I’ll enjoy the warmth

            and fragrance of this first spring day


            wishing myself

            in another time or place



Almost every poem in Willow Light speaks of a unique moment:

Karin Anderson’s:

missing birds

            the question marks

            of cat tails


or Maeve Archibald’s


strung along the line

white washing


or Belinda Broughton’s:

down the painting

   on tiptoes

       the daddylonglegs

I really admire the way that Belinda has married her twin talents of writing and visual art!

Lyn Arden’s:

near Basho’s statue

            a hundred tadpoles striving to become frogs


Many of these poems can be appreciated on more than one level.

Lee Bentley’s

Christmas buffet

            I pick and choose

            my words


We appreciate poems when we can identify with the emotion. I found this with Lyn Arden’s spectacles and this one of Jill Gower’s:

melancholy notes

            send chills down my spine

            his saxophone

            no longer stands

            in the corner of my room

It isn’t possible for me to read the whole book. Please forgive me if I haven’t read one of yours! There isn’t a bad poem in this entire publication. Good luck with your writing. Please accept my personal invitation to the launch of my poetry collection tropeland on June 25.

Congratulations everyone for this fine collection. With that, I officially declare Willow Light to be well and truly launched!